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Career Planning For Associates

What, precisely, is going to make you special (or even more special) in the marketplace over the next few years?

Would you like to develop a specialized expertise in a particular technical area, in certain types of transaction, in the problems of certain types of clients?

You probably can develop cutting-edge expertise in any one of these, but not all of them simultaneously. The choice is yours.

All the firm asks of you is that you focus and stretch; that you pick a career-building goal and work towards it.

– David Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm.

Developing success as an associate is not merely meekly accepting whatever task is tossed along towards you, but instead seeking out interesting work and assignments.

Developing success as an associate means picking an area of practice and pursuing it with vigor. Learning about the clients and their business and industry far outside of the required bare minimum to complete your work. Choosing a path of development and relentlessly pursuing it.

This is not your managing partner’s responsibility. It is yours.

Career Planning For Associates

Career Planning For Associates

Your personal and professional development will always be your responsibility.

Maybe your firm has a mentorship program that is supposed to help new lawyers learn. Or your local bar has a leadership development program your firm encourage you to join. Regardless of the systems that are there to help you develop they’re really only there to assist you – not do it for you.

It’s up to you to take ownership of where your career is going and how you want to get there. Start by following these steps:

  • Perform a SWOT analysis on yourself – This is an important step to a successful self-assessment. Be brutally honest with yourself. (I explain SWOT analysis in my Annual Planning Guide for Lawyers.)
  • Identify career goals – These are milestones you want to achieve in your career. These need to be specific and include estimated completion dates. “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” – Napoleon.
    • Short term – 1 to 3 years out.
    • Long-term –  3 to 5 years out.
  • Development objectives – These are the building blocks that you will assemble to achieve your goals. Tangible skills and milestones you will meet on the way to achieving your goals.
  • Find training/development opportunities -Formal classroom training (CLEs), web-based training, shadowing senior attorneys, reading, writing, self-study programs, professional conferences/seminars, etc.

But having an understanding of the above isn’t enough. You need to determine how you’re going to make it happen.

Adopt Systemic Development

The only way you’re going to be able to achieve these things with any regularity is by developing systems to steer your behavior and practice. You need to take the time to understand your routines and habits and workflow.

Why are the way they are? Did you consciously adopt them and organize them in this way? Or did you just sort of glom on to them by being in a particular office environment?

If the systems you follow in your work life and your personal life don’t align towards pushing you towards the goals you set for yourself above, then they need to be abandoned. Not adjusted, not rethought, not workgrouped. You need to get rid of them and find systems that will actually help you achieve your goals.

Improving Yourself Improves The Firm

Maister goes on to discuss how infrequently associates and partners in professional services firms develop a personal strategic plan, usually at a detriment to the firm. Toiling away as an associate like a cog in the machine does no one – the cog or the machine – any good.

No one else gets to decide what motivates you. That’s up to you. You have to develop yourself personally and professionally because that will in turn develop the firm as a whole. Again Maister,

“Developing a strategy is fundamentally a creative activity, not an analytical one. It’s about finding new ways of doing things that provide an advantage over the competition.”

By developing your own skills, and making yourself more valuable to the firm, you will in turn make the firm’s services more valuable to clients.

3 comments

  1. Solid article. These are the proven steps to success. I’m always surprised by the number of junior associates that think you get “promoted” to partner at a big firm. It’s a common question – “What do I have to do to make partner?”

    The answer has always been that you aren’t promoted. There’s no choosing ceremony. You make partner when the other partners start thinking of you as a partner. You have to make yourself into a partner. The title will come later.

    • “You have to make yourself into a partner. The title will come later.”

      Can’t be repeated often enough. Too many associates are waiting for partner. But it’s not something bestowed upon you, it’s something you chase after and get.

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